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Rethinking what killed the citizens of Pompeii

New research shows that victims at Pompeii died from temperature, not from suffocation by ash.

The Mt. Vesuvius volcano took their lives in 79 A.D., unleashing its fury and burying the ancient port city of Pompeii under layers of lava and ashes. The sight was so horrific, that Pompeians thought the gods had grown angry — and that the end of the world was near.

Since the uncovering of Pompeii in 1599, archeologists believed that these ancient Romans died by being suffocated by the ashes and gases spewing for two days from the mouth of Vesuvius. Their theory rested on the account of a contemporary witness, Pliny the Younger, who saw the eruption from across the Gulf of Naples, claiming that his uncle in Pompeii had taken his last breath under a cloud of ash.

“Our scientific research has proven differently, that death came because of the temperature, not suffocation,” said Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a rogue vulcanologist from the Naples Observatory. “Everything that has been written in the guides, and the texts, and that has been re-told to tourists is false,” he said.

After years of analyzing nearly 100 skeletal casts, testing bone tissue and creating numerous simulations of the Vesuvius eruption, Mastrolorenzo concluded that the people of Pompeii were instantly killed by a pyroclastic cloud, a gusty surge carrying the volcano’s lethal temperatures.

His findings were recently published in the science journal, PLoS One. Mastrolorenzo and his team of scientists exposed human and animal bones to high temperatures to see how their color and micro-structure would change. Bones in the lab began looking like bones in Pompeii once reaching temperatures of between 480 and 570 degrees Fahrenheit.

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